I, and some of the other writers on this site, have written several articles about free speech and watching what you say. They are always somewhat controversial, often generating heated comments and discussion.
However, this article is a little different. It is not about deportation, vendettas, or anything of the sort. Rather, it is an example of how a cultural misunderstanding can hurt, not the person saying the words, but someone else. I’ll explain. While travelling in Bangladesh last week, I did something really stupid. Unintentional, but stupid, nonetheless. Yes, it did not happen in the Philippines. However, the location most certainly could have been here. Additionally, the harm it could have caused could easily have happened here.
So, my colleagues and I were at our hotel, eating breakfast. One of the staff, the concierge, came to our table, and we were chatting with her, and she was being very helpful as to answering our questions, making some logistical arrangements for us, and going above and beyond a normal employee’s duties, or so we thought.
So, as we are finishing, she brings us our bill and says, “Please fill out the comments card if you have anything you wish to tell management.” So, my colleague and I fill in the card. Last question:
“Were our staff helpful and accommodating to your needs during your stay?”
Our response: “Excellent employee, who was more than helpful. This girl deserves a raise.”
So, we wrote that down, trying to be nice. Lots of people complain, but I also feel that service employees deserve praise when they do an outstanding job. We pack up and leave to our meetings, and I didn’t think much of it after that.
So, the next morning, we are at breakfast, and we see the concierge again. She looks really disturbed, and my colleague asks, “Is everything OK? Yesterday you were so smiling and helpful.”
“I got into trouble because of that comment you guys left in the survey.”
“Huh? Why? We said you were an excellent employee.”
As it turns out, her manager thought that she had been discussing her salary with us, something that is normally somewhat taboo, but especially in Asia. She was reprimanded, and threatened with termination.
Needless to say, we were both surprised and felt really bad that the incident had happened. We had intended the remark to be something good, not to get anyone into trouble. We offered to speak with her manager to sort things out, but she requested that we not do so. Since we were afraid that it might get her into further trouble, we honored her wish. About thirty minutes later, as we were getting ready to leave, the manager approaches us and asks, “Excuse me, but I would like to ask if ____ discussed her salary with you gentlemen?”
Both of us immediately said, unequivocally “NO, she did not!” Furthermore, we stated that there was a cultural misunderstanding happening here… We simply were praising a good job from one of the hotel employees. That was all. Very apologetic, I said that it was just our way of saying, “Good job.”
After about five minutes, the manager understood what we had done, and assured us that the employee was not in any trouble.
The point about all of this is that cultural misunderstandings are inevitable, on some level, no matter how well-travelled you are, no matter how long you live somewhere. The remark we made in the survey, innocuous in most Western countries, would have been taken at its’ intended meaning: The employee would have been told, or at least given an “Atta Boy” or “Good Job!”, not threatened with termination. Was I careless? Certainly. I have travelled enough to know that there are times that saying nothing is the best course of action. I also know that salary is often a subject best left alone. I can blame it on being busy, thinking of other things, or whatnot… Bottom line, I got careless.
I am human, though. I make mistakes like anyone else. I am grateful that the matter was resolved, without the girl losing her job.
This could easily have happened in the Philippines. Developing world, luxury hotel, those jobs are in high demand, and employees employees in those positions are often holding college degrees. This type of job is hard to obtain. Employees are often terminated upon the flimsiest of excuses. She could have been harmed by an innocent remark.
Employees in the Philippines are typically not empowered to a great extent. They often can do very little in the face of complaints. They often have only very limited, if any, authority to make decisions or to solve problems. There is nothing wrong with saying that someone did a good job. However, as illustrated above, the way it is said can make a big difference.
This was probably my biggest cultural mistake in my career… Previously, my next “less than shining” moment occurred once in Japan, during a sales presentation. We were discussing a harbour radar system and I was asked about an example. Focusing on the technical answer, and thinking of an example, my mind shifted to a similar system used in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor. So, I draw a little diagram of the harbor on the white board, trying to show the harbor layout and location of radar arrays, and, in a room full of Japanese, I blurt out, “You guys know Pearl Harbor, right?”
Needless to say, there were a number of icy stares. I recovered, and we were all drunk that evening (Did not lose business), but not my most spectacular success, and nobody was harmed. The incident with the concierge could have really messed up her livelihood.
So, I am relating this story to make the point that you need to think about what you say, and how you say it. This type of discussion goes way beyond the “free speech” argument… What you say can cause harm, even if unintended.